Features Icon 1 FEATURES

A timeless lesson from Archie Mac

A timeless lesson from Archie Mac

After the Declaration of War on 4 August 1914 the English First Class cricket season ended amidst some chaos and it was to be 1919 before the game resumed. Little was learnt about the state of the game in that first season when, for the first and so far only time, all County Championship matches were limited to two days duration. There was no Test cricket in 1919 or 1920 and the resumption of international cricket was set for the 1920/21 Australian season. With just one exception the party that was selected to tour consisted of men who had played before the war and England were crushed by Warwick Armstrong’s men who won all five Tests. In the first match of the series the average age of the English team was 35 and its youngest member, Yorkshireman Abe Waddington, the one man who had not played before the war, was himself 27.

Armstrong’s men followed the Englishmen home in the spring of 1921 to play a return series. Ted McDonald, who had not found his form in the first series, now did so and England suffered three demoralising defeats in the first three Tests. The fourth and fifth matches were drawn due to better batting displays on benign pitches but the 30 players that the selectors used in that series did nothing to inspire confidence for the future. The average age of the England team in the final Test of that 1921 series was still 34.

It is at this point that the mercurial Archibald Campbell MacLaren takes centre stage. MacLaren was one of the giants of the Golden Age and in his prime a magnificent batsman. He was also a man of strong views, at times inflexibly so, and overall his record as a captain at Test level is unimpressive however he was never afraid to experiment and could never be accused of having been dull.

Throughout 1921 the outspoken MacLaren, by now earning part of his living by writing about the game, was deeply critical of the England selectors and adamant that Armstrong’s apparently invincible side could be beaten if the correct personnel and tactics were used against them. It is, of course, easy to make such proclamations from the press box safe in the knowledge that wild ideas will not be put to the Test but that was not the case for MacLaren in 1921. To his delight he was invited to select an England XI to play in a festival match at Eastbourne following the conclusion of the Test series thus affording him the opportunity he craved to prove his theories correct.

The team that MacLaren selected was written off by many commentators before the match began. The captain of the XI was, naturally, MacLaren himself despite his being in his 50th year and not having played the game regularly for more than a decade. MacLaren also invited his old friend and Lancashire colleague Walter Brearley to join his XI. Brearley was a fine pace bowler in his youth but had not played First Class cricket of any sort for nine years and was 45 years of age when the match began. In the event Brearley sustained an injury and did not bowl even a single over in the match. The last of the experienced men selected was the noted South African all rounder, Aubrey Faulkner, a mere stripling at 39 but again a man who had played no regular First Class cricket for almost a decade.

MacLaren’s belief was that in order to defeat the Australians what was required was enterprising and aggressive batting, steady and accurate bowling and superb fielding and it was with those aims in mind that he selected the rest of his side. It is worth pausing at this stage to examine those other eight selections individually given that only one of them, future England Captain Percy Chapman, was to leave a significant mark on the game

G N Foster:

An odd selection Geoffrey Foster, one of the famous brotherhood that supplied seven First Class cricketers to Worcestershire, was nearly 37 when the match began. Foster’s entire career, most of which was over by 1921, brought him 6,600 runs at an average of just over 28 so he fell some way short of the highest class but in keeping with MacLaren’s policy he was an amateur, a dashing right handed top order batsman and had a reputation as a magnificent fielder.

G E C Wood:

George Wood was the wicket keeper for MacLaren’s XI, an amateur and 27 years of age. He did, in 1924, play three times for England against the visiting South Africans but commitments outside the game prevented him playing regularly and he played only 101 First Class matches in his career. He was, inevitably, a forcing batsman but it was his brilliant wicket keeping and particularly the fact that he pressurised batsman by standing up to the stumps to all bowlers that attracted MacLaren.

A P F Chapman:

Percy Chapman was to go on to play 26 Tests for England including a successful period as captain. The match against Armstrong’s Australians was only his 28th First Class match and he was averaging just under 40 and still an undergraduate at Cambridge University. He was a carefree and, so some would say, somewhat careless, left handed batsman who scored very quickly and, by comment consensus, was as fine a fieldsman as the game had at that time seen. He was 20 when he stepped out onto the field at Eastbourne.

G Ashton:

At 24 the eldest of the three Ashton brothers who appeared. Gilbert was another member of the successful Cambridge University side and this was his 24th First Class match and he was averaging just over 30 at the time. He was, inevitably in this side, an aggressive batsman, particularly strong square of the wicket on both sides and a magnificent cover point.

H Ashton:

Middle brother Hubert was 22 and also at Cambridge University. He, in 1920, had recorded a not out double century in only his second First Class match which rather inflated his average and in a short first class career that average ended up at just under 40. A fine all round sportsman Hubert, like his brother, was a dashing right handed batsman and a fine close fielder.

C T Ashton:

The youngest of the brotherhood, just 20 years of age, Claude Ashton was at Cambridge with his brothers and the match against the Australians was just his fourth First Class appearance. He had achieved nothing of note in the previous three, and indeed was to average no more than 25 over a career which, intermittently, was to last almost 20 years, but MacLaren had seen enough to know that Claude?s dashing stroke play and magnificent fielding in the covers were what he required.

M Falcon:

Michael Falcon, aged 33, was a right arm fast medium bowler with the ability to produce late out swing and considerable lift. He never played for a First Class county his only First Class cricket being for Cambridge University and the MCC and in 1921 he was, as he did for many years, playing for Norfolk in the Minor Counties Championship. This did not prevent MacLaren spending the entire summer advocating his selection for England and he was one of the first players to whom MacLaren turned when selecting his side.

C H Gibson:

Clem Gibson was just 20 when the game began and was a fifth member of the Cambridge University XI. Gibson was predominantly a bowler (although a useful late order batsman) whose bowling was very similar to Falcon?s and he enjoyed a similar reputation for steadiness. This was his 26th First Class match and his third against Armstrong?s Australians. In an early season match against them, and this illustrates the reason for his selection by MacLaren, he had bowled 25 overs taking four wickets for just 34 runs. He was to play a full season for Sussex in 1926 but that apart was seldom seen in First Class cricket.

So the composition of MacLaren’s side was three long retired international cricketers, three seasoned if not particularly well known amateurs and five students. It would have been six students had C S “Father” Marriott been able to accept an invitation to play his place being the one eventually taken by Brearley.

As far as the Australian side was concerned this was virtually the same as their full strength XI. Jack Ryder played instead of Johnny Taylor but no one would suggest that that significantly weakened the team. The Australians star players, Bardsley, McCartney, Armstrong, Gregory, McDonald and Mailey were all playing at Eastbourne.

The morning of the match dawned and a perfect batting wicket was bathed in seasonal sunshine. MacLaren won the toss and elected to bat only to see his side rolled over in 75 minutes by McDonald and Armstrong for just 43. It is surprising in the circumstances that contemporary reports suggest that MacLaren remained calm and confident despite what many of his charges felt was quite simply humiliating.

The Australians in response made a good start reaching 80 for 1 before firstly Faulkner, with his leg breaks and googlies, and then Falcon, settled down and the brilliant fielding of the England XI enabled them to bowl the Australians out for just 174 albeit that gave them what most spectators would have seen as a match winning lead of 131.

At the fall of the last Australian wicket there was still time for MacLaren’s side to begin their second innings and, accordingly, for the Australians to make inroads into the English batting. MacLaren was desperate to protect his attacking batsmen until the following day and he chose to turn the clock back to the Golden Age by opening the innings himself, in partnership with wicket keeper Wood. Wood fell to McDonald but that was the only alarm that evening. Next morning MacLaren, to the disappointment of the crowd who still expected a crushing Australian victory, was bowled from the first ball of the day and when Foster was removed at 33 the game seemed to be as good as over.

Foster’s dismissal brought Gilbert and Hubert Ashton together and at last the nerves seemed to disappear and although Gilbert had only scored 36 when he was out with the score at 60, his brother barely off the mark, he had shown what could be achieved. Gilbert’s dismissal brought Faulkner to the wicket and he and Hubert Ashton proceeded to add a memorable 154 for the fifth wicket before Armstrong removed Ashton for 75. Chapman did not last for very long and Claude Ashton was removed without scoring but Faulkner marshalled the tail superbly to add another 70 and when the England XI were all out for 326 an hour before the close Australia, while still favourites, were by no means assured of victory needing 196 to win. They advanced to 25 for 1 before the close of play.

As the last morning began there was a huge sense of anticipation around the ground. It would be interesting to know exactly what MacLaren’s instructions to his side were but his players certainly did all that he could have expected of them. Falcon and Gibson both bowled long accurate spells and the fielders made the Australians work for absolutely everything. Lunch was taken with the Australians moving steadily towards their targetbut wickets had fallen. They were five down with another 90 still required for victory and brilliant catches had been held by Hubert and Claude Ashton in the slips.

After lunch Andrews and Ryder decided that attack was the best form of defence and quickly took the score to 140 when finally, after 18 consecutive overs from the start of the innings, MacLaren felt obliged to replace the tiring Falcon with the spin of Faulkner. It should be remembered at this point that due to Brearley’s injury MacLaren was in real difficulty in terms of juggling his bowlers only Claude Ashton of the rest of the side having any pretentions to being a bowler and it seems highly improbable that his right arm medium pace would have been anything other than meat and drink to the Australians had it been deployed.

The change of bowling broke the Australian stranglehold that had developed since lunch as firstly Ryder, playing a poor shot at Gibson, was caught at cover by Gilbert Ashton and just two balls later the same bowler trapped Gregory LBW. At 143 for 7 the whole tenor of the game had changed and the Englishmen were on top for the first time. There was to be no nailbiting finish however as Gibson and Faulkner did not relax their grip and less than eight overs later Gibson bowled Arthur Mailey for a duck and, by 28 runs, for the first time on the tour the Australians colours were lowered.

Needless to say MacLaren and his supporters were in high spirits following the victory and MacLaren rightly felt that all his criticism of the selectors had been vindicated. There were, inevitably given the enemies that MacLaren had made over the years, those who continued to snipe at him and attempted to undermine his achievement by pointing out that the match was a festival fixture at the end of a long tour and that the Australians were not up for the fight. Such a suggestion is not one which should be given any credence the likelihood of any Australian team, let alone one captained by Warwick Armstrong, giving less than 100% being so ridiculous it can be dismissed out of hand. That Armstrong may have become over confident after the England XI’s first innings debacle, and that he was out thought by MacLaren are different points altogether and there was certainly an element of each at play but that represents nothing more than confirmation of the credit that MacLaren deserved. Had the Australians been taking the game less than seriously then surely on that first morning when MacLaren, who had always been popular in Australia, came in at 41 for 7 he would, as a minimum, have been given one off the mark rather than, as happened, greeted with a perfect delivery from McDonald which shattered his stumps.

The above being said it has to be accepted that the match was not a major one in the history of the game however in this writer’s views lessons are there which successive generations of English selectors have singularly failed to take on board. The first point is that there is such a thing as a losing habit. The England Test side which lost 8 out of 10 Test matches to the same side that MacLaren’s scratch XI beat was not one that consisted of poor players. The likes of Hobbs, Hendren, Woolley, Rhodes and Mead are rightly remembered to this day yet there must be an element in their makeup of having been beaten before they started when opposed by Armstrong’s men .

Secondly there has always been a marked reluctance on the part of England’s selectors to pick youth above experience. An adventurous pick for an England Selection Panel has generally seemed to be plucking a journeyman county cricketer from obscurity rather than taking a gamble on a promising youngster which MacLaren did to spectacular effect with as many as five youngsters. The selectors reluctance to experiment with youth is shown by the fact that there is only one Englishman, Brian Close, in the list of the 50 youngest Test cricketers and he was treated poorly by the selectors as have others who have been picked young for England.

One of the excuses that is sometimes given when this issue is raised is the fragility of the young player’s confidence if he performs badly. That that is an oversimplification is amply demonstrated once again by the experience of MacLaren’s XI. It is difficult to see how they could have made a worse start than to be all out for 43 and they must have been, as was confirmed by the correspondence of some of them that was sent many years later to MacLaren’s biographer, at a very low ebb at lunch on the first day. It was MacLaren’s man management skills that turned the match round yet successive England selectors have, and do to this day, seemed to ignore that simple reality.

For this writer it matters not how good a coach is technically or how adept he is at assessing a player’s potential. What is most important with any sportsman is what the sportsman himself believes he can do and as the best soccer managers always manage to prove if you can get inside a player’s head you are most of the way towards making him a better player. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that cricketers are any different from footballers and MacLaren’s strength was that he knew just how to get the best out of each of the individuals he was working with.

If England go 3-0 down this winter in South Africa, and while I sincerely hope it will not happen the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand, and the management are looking for inspiration, they could so a great deal worse than look back nearly a century and ask themselves “what would Archie MacLaren have done?”. Perhaps James Taylor should check his passport.


The England selectors probably could learn something from that match, then again most of that sorry bunch of plebs could learn something from an episode of Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men.

Comment by Lillian Thomson | 12:00am GMT 18 December 2009

Very interesting read. Great article. Need more similar ones :). I think this is where we can really differentiate ourselves from places like cricinfo. They don’t do this often, and we have enough members well versed enough to really put out some quality articles. The one on Sehwag and Bradman by SJS was also like this.

Different and interesting. And much more lasting than discussing only a pressing issue – historical context makes the articles much more timeless.

Comment by silentstriker | 12:00am GMT 18 December 2009

Great Stuff Martin, Loved it.

Comment by Sanz | 12:00am GMT 19 December 2009

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler